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How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for Law Students

By Mahashehri Mar 14, 2011 4543 Words
HOW TO READ A LEGAL OPINION
A GUIDE FOR NEW LAW STUDENTS

Orin S. Kerr

Copyright © 2007 Orin S. Kerr

Second Series • Autumn 2007

Volume 11 • Number 1

Published by The Green Bag, Inc., in cooperation with the George Mason University School of Law.

Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1160925

 

 
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1160925

 

      HOW TO READ A  LEGAL OPINION 
A GUIDE FOR NEW LAW STUDENTS 

Orin S. Kerr†
This essay is designed to help new law students prepare for the first few weeks of class. It explains what judicial opinions are, how they are structured, and what law students should look for when reading them.

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I. WHAT’S IN A LEGAL OPINION? 

hen two people disagree and that disagreement leads to a lawsuit, the lawsuit will sometimes end with a ruling by a judge in favor of one side. The judge will explain the ruling in a written document referred to as an “opinion.” The opinion explains what the case is about, discusses the relevant legal principles, and then applies the law to the facts to reach a ruling in favor of one side and against the other. Modern judicial opinions reflect hundreds of years of history and practice. They usually follow a simple and predictable formula. This



Orin Kerr is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. This essay can be freely distributed for non-commercial uses under the Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. For the terms of the license, visit creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode. 11 GREEN BAG 2D 51  Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1160925

Orin S. Kerr  section takes you through the basic formula. It starts with the introductory materials at the top of an opinion and then moves on to the body of the opinion. The Caption  The first part of the case is the title of the case, known as the “caption.” Examples include Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona. The caption usually tells you the last names of the person who brought the lawsuit and the person who is being sued. These two sides are often referred to as the “parties” or as the “litigants” in the case. For example, if Ms. Smith sues Mr. Jones, the case caption may be Smith v. Jones (or, depending on the court, Jones v. Smith). In criminal law, cases are brought by government prosecutors on behalf of the government itself. This means that the government is the named party. For example, if the federal government charges John Doe with a crime, the case caption will be United States v. Doe. If a state brings the charges instead, the caption will be State v. Doe, People v. Doe, or Commonwealth v. Doe, depending on the practices of that state.1 The Case Citation  Below the case name you will find some letters and numbers. These letters and numbers are the legal citation for the case. A citation tells you the name of the court that decided the case, the law book in which the opinion was published, and the year in which the court decided the case. For example, “U.S. Supreme Court, 485 U.S. 759 (1988)” refers to a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1988 that appears in Volume 485 of the United States Reports starting at page 759. The Author of the Opinion  The next information is the name of the judge who wrote the opinion. Most opinions assigned in law school were issued by courts 1

English criminal cases normally will be Rex v. Doe or Regina v. Doe. Rex and Regina aren’t the victims: the words are Latin for “King” and “Queen.” During the reign of a King, English courts use “Rex”; during the reign of a Queen, they switch to “Regina.” 52  11 GREEN BAG 2D 

How to Read a Legal Opinion  with multiple judges. The name tells you which judge wrote that particular opinion. In older cases, the opinion often simply states a last name followed by the initial “J.” No, judges don’t all have the first initial “J.” The letter stands for “Judge” or “Justice,” depending on the court. On occasion, the opinion will use the Latin phrase “per curiam” instead of a judge’s name. Per curiam means “by the court.” It signals that the opinion reflects a common view among all the judges rather than the writings of a specific judge. The Facts of the Case  Now let’s move on to the opinion itself. The first part of the body of the opinion presents the facts of the case. In other words, what happened? The facts might be that Andy pulled out a gun and shot Bob. Or maybe Fred agreed to give Sally $100 and then changed his mind. Surprisingly, there are no particular rules for what facts a judge must include in the fact section of an opinion. Sometimes the fact sections are long, and sometimes they are short. Sometimes they are clear and accurate, and other times they are vague or incomplete. Most discussions of the facts also cover the “procedural history” of the case. The procedural history explains how the legal dispute worked its way through the legal system to the court that is issuing the opinion. It will include various motions, hearings, and trials that occurred after the case was initially filed. Your civil procedure class is all about that kind of stuff; you should pay very close attention to the procedural history of cases when you read assignments for your civil procedure class. The procedural history of cases usually will be less important when you read a case for your other classes. The Law of the Case  After the opinion presents the facts, it will then discuss the law. Many opinions present the law in two stages. The first stage discusses the general principles of law that are relevant to cases such as the one the court is deciding. This section might explore the history of a particular field of law or may include a discussion of past cases (known as “precedents”) that are related to the case the court is deAUTUMN 2007  53 

Orin S. Kerr  ciding. This part of the opinion gives the reader background to help understand the context and significance of the court’s decision. The second stage of the legal section applies the general legal principles to the particular facts of the dispute. As you might guess, this part is in many ways the heart of the opinion: It gets to the bottom line of why the court is ruling for one side and against the other. Concurring and/or Dissenting Opinions  Most of the opinions you read as a law student are “majority” opinions. When a group of judges get together to decide a case, they vote on which side should win and also try to agree on a legal rationale to explain why that side has won. A majority opinion is an opinion joined by the majority of judges on that court. Although most decisions are unanimous, some cases are not. Some judges may disagree and will write a separate opinion offering a different approach. Those opinions are called “concurring opinions” or “dissenting opinions,” and they appear after the majority opinion. A “concurring opinion” (sometimes just called a “concurrence”) explains a vote in favor of the winning side but based on a different legal rationale. A “dissenting opinion” (sometimes just called a “dissent”) explains a vote in favor of the losing side.

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II. COMMON LEGAL TERMS  FOUND IN OPINIONS 

ow that you know what’s in a legal opinion, it’s time to learn some of the common words you’ll find inside them. But first a history lesson, for reasons that should be clear in a minute. In 1066, William the Conqueror came across the English Channel from what is now France and conquered the land that is today called England. The conquering Normans spoke French and the defeated Saxons spoke Old English. The Normans took over the court system, and their language became the language of the law. For several centuries after the French-speaking Normans took over England, lawyers and judges in English courts spoke in French. When English courts eventually returned to using English, they continued to use many French words. 11 GREEN BAG 2D 

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How to Read a Legal Opinion  Why should you care about this ancient history? The American colonists considered themselves Englishmen, so they used the English legal system and adopted its language. This means that American legal opinions today are littered with weird French terms. Examples include plaintiff, defendant, tort, contract, crime, judge, attorney, counsel, court, verdict, party, appeal, evidence, and jury. These words are the everyday language of the American legal system. And they’re all from the French, brought to you by William the Conqueror in 1066. This means that when you read a legal opinion, you’ll come across a lot of foreign-sounding words to describe the court system. You need to learn all of these words eventually; you should read cases with a legal dictionary nearby and should look up every word you don’t know. But this section will give you a head start by introducing you to some of the most common words, many of which (but not all) are French in origin. Types of Disputes and the Names of Participants  There are two basic kinds of legal disputes: civil and criminal. In a civil case, one person files a lawsuit against another asking the court to order the other side to pay him money or to do or stop doing something. An award of money is called “damages” and an order to do something or to refrain from doing something is called an “injunction.” The person bringing the lawsuit is known as the “plaintiff” and the person sued is called the “defendant.” In criminal cases, there is no plaintiff and no lawsuit. The role of a plaintiff is occupied by a government prosecutor. Instead of filing a lawsuit (or equivalently, “suing” someone), the prosecutor files criminal “charges.” Instead of asking for damages or an injunction, the prosecutor asks the court to punish the individual through either jail time or a fine. The government prosecutor is often referred to as “the state,” “the prosecution,” or simply “the government.” The person charged is called the defendant, just like the person sued in a civil case. In legal disputes, each party ordinarily is represented by a lawyer. Legal opinions use several different words for lawyers, includAUTUMN 2007  55 

Orin S. Kerr  ing “attorney” and “counsel.” There are some historical differences among these terms, but for the last century or so they have all meant the same thing. When a lawyer addresses a judge in court, she will always address the judge as “your honor,” just like lawyers do in the movies. In legal opinions, however, judges will usually refer to themselves as “the Court.” Terms in Appellate Litigation  Most opinions that you read in law school are appellate opinions, which means that they decide the outcome of appeals. An “appeal” is a legal proceeding that considers whether another court’s legal decision was right or wrong. After a court has ruled for one side, the losing side may seek review of that decision by filing an appeal before a higher court. The original court is usually known as the trial court, because that’s where the trial occurs if there is one. The higher court is known as the appellate or appeals court, as it is the court that hears the appeal. A single judge presides over trial court proceedings, but appellate cases are decided by panels of several judges. For example, in the federal court system, run by the United States government, a single trial judge known as a District Court judge oversees the trial stage. Cases can be appealed to the next higher court, the Court of Appeals, where cases are decided by panels of three judges known as Circuit Court judges. A side that loses before the Circuit Court can seek review of that decision at the United States Supreme Court. Supreme Court cases are decided by all nine judges. Supreme Court judges are called Justices instead of judges; there is one “Chief Justice” and the other eight are just plain “Justices” (technically they are “Associate Justices,” but everyone just calls them “Justices”). During the proceedings before the higher court, the party that lost at the original court and is therefore filing the appeal is usually known as the “appellant.” The party that won in the lower court and must defend the lower court’s decision is known as the “appellee” (accent on the last syllable). Some older opinions may refer to the appellant as the “plaintiff in error” and the appellee as the “defendant 56  11 GREEN BAG 2D 

How to Read a Legal Opinion  in error.” Finally, some courts label an appeal as a “petition,” and require the losing party to petition the higher court for relief. In these cases, the party that lost before the lower court and is filing the petition for review is called the “petitioner.” The party that won before the lower court and is responding to the petition in the higher court is called the “respondent.” Confused yet? You probably are, but don’t worry. You’ll read so many cases in the next few weeks that you’ll get used to all of this very soon.

kay, so you’ve just read a case for class. You think you understand it, but you’re not sure if you learned what your professor wanted you to learn. Here is what professors want students to know after reading a case assigned for class: Know the Facts  Law professors love the facts. When they call on students in class, they typically begin by asking students to state the facts of a particular case. Facts are important because law is often highly factsensitive, which is a fancy way of saying that the proper legal outcome depends on the exact details of what happened. If you don’t know the facts, you can’t really understand the case and can’t understand the law. Most law students don’t appreciate the importance of the facts when they read a case. Students think, “I’m in law school, not fact school; I want to know what the law is, not just what happened in this one case.” But trust me: the facts are really important.2 2

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III. WHAT YOU NEED TO LEARN FROM  READING A CASE 

If you don’t believe me, you should take a look at a few law school exams. It turns out that the most common form of law school exam question presents a long description of a very particular set of facts. It then asks the student to “spot” and analyze the legal issues presented by those facts. These exam questions are known as “issue-spotters,” as they test the student’s ability to understand the facts and spot the legal issues they raise. As you might imagine, doing well on an issueAUTUMN 2007  57 

Orin S. Kerr  Know the Specific Legal Arguments Made by the Parties  Lawsuits are disputes, and judges only issue opinions when two parties to a dispute disagree on a particular legal question. This means that legal opinions focus on resolving the parties’ very specific disagreement. The lawyers, not the judges, take the lead role in framing the issues raised by a case. In an appeal, for example, the lawyer for the appellant will articulate specific ways in which the lower court was wrong. The appellate court will then look at those arguments and either agree or disagree. (Now you can understand why people pay big bucks for top lawyers; the best lawyers are highly skilled at identifying and articulating their arguments to the court.) Because the lawyers take the lead role in framing the issues, you need to understand exactly what arguments the two sides were making. Know the Disposition  The “disposition” of a case is the action the court took. It is often announced at the very end of the opinion. For example, an appeals court might “affirm” a lower court decision, upholding it, or it might “reverse” the decision, ruling for the other side. Alternatively, an appeals court might “vacate” the lower court decision, wiping the lower-court decision off the books, and then “remand” the case, sending it back to the lower court for further proceedings. For now, you should keep in mind that when a higher court “affirms” it means that the lower court had it right (in result, if not in reasoning). Words like “reverse,” “remand,” and “vacate” means that the higher court though the lower court had it wrong. Understand the Reasoning of the Majority Opinion  To understand the reasoning of an opinion, you should first identify the source of the law the judge applied. Some opinions interpret the Constitution, the founding charter of the government. Other cases spotter requires developing a careful and nuanced understanding of the importance of the facts. The best way to prepare for that is to read the fact sections of your cases very carefully. 58  11 GREEN BAG 2D 

How to Read a Legal Opinion  interpret “statutes,” which is a fancy name for written laws passed by legislative bodies such as Congress. Still other cases interpret “the common law,” which is a term that usually refers to the body of prior case decisions that derive ultimately from pre-1776 English law that the Colonists brought over from England.3 In your first year, the opinions that you read in your Torts, Contracts, and Property classes will mostly interpret the common law. Opinions in Criminal Law mostly interpret either the common law or statutes. Finally, opinions in your Civil Procedure casebook will mostly interpret statutory law or the Constitution. The source of law is very important because American law follows a clear hierarchy. Constitutional rules trump statutory (statute-based) rules, and statutory rules trump common law rules. After you have identified the source of law, you should next identify the method of reasoning that the court used to justify its decision. When a case is governed by a statute, for example, the court usually will simply follow what the statute says. The court’s role is narrow in such settings because the legislature has settled the law. Similarly, when past courts have already answered similar questions before, a court may conclude that it is required to reach a particular result because it is bound by the past precedents. This is an application of the judicial practice of “stare decisis,” an abbreviation of a Latin phrase meaning “That which has been already decided should remain settled.” In other settings, courts may justify their decisions on public policy grounds. That is, they may pick the rule that they think is the best rule, and they may explain in the opinion why they think that rule is best. This is particularly likely in common law cases where judges are not bound by a statute or constitutional rule. Other courts will rely on morality, fairness, or notions of justice to justify 3

The phrase “common law” started being used about a thousand years ago to refer to laws that were common to all English citizens. Thus, the word “common” in the phrase “common law” means common in the sense of “shared by all,” not common in the sense of “not very special.” The “common law” was announced in judicial opinions. As a result, you will sometimes hear the phrase “common law” used to refer to areas of judge-made law as opposed to legislatively-made law. AUTUMN 2007  59 

Orin S. Kerr  their decisions. Many courts will mix and match, relying on several or even all of these justifications. Understand the Significance of the Majority Opinion  Some opinions resolve the parties’ legal dispute by announcing and applying a clear rule of law that is new to that particular case. That rule is known as the “holding” of the case. Holdings are often contrasted with “dicta” found in an opinion. Dicta refers to legal statements in the opinion not needed to resolve the dispute of the parties; the word is a pluralized abbreviation of the Latin phrase “obiter dictum,” which means “a remark by the way.” When a court announces a clear holding, you should take a minute to think about how the court’s rule would apply in other situations. During class, professors like to pose “hypotheticals,” new sets of facts that are different from those found in the cases you have read. They do this for two reasons. First, it’s hard to understand the significance of a legal rule unless you think about how it might apply to lots of different situations. A rule might look good in one setting, but another set of facts might reveal a major problem or ambiguity. Second, judges often reason by “analogy,” which means a new case may be governed by an older case when the facts of the new case are similar to those of the older one. This raises the question, which are the legally relevant facts for this particular rule? The best way to evaluate this is to consider new sets of facts. You’ll spend a lot of time doing this in class, and you can get a head start on your class discussions by asking the hypotheticals on your own before class begins. Finally, you should accept that some opinions are vague. Sometimes a court won’t explain its reasoning very well, and that forces us to try to figure out what the opinion means. You’ll look for the holding of the case but become frustrated because you can’t find one. It’s not your fault; some opinions are written in a narrow way so that there is no clear holding, and others are just poorly reasoned or written. Rather than trying to fill in the ambiguity with false certainty, try embracing the ambiguity instead. One of the skills of topflight lawyers is that they know what they don’t know: they know 60  11 GREEN BAG 2D 

How to Read a Legal Opinion  when the law is unclear. Indeed, this skill of identifying when a problem is easy and when it is hard (in the sense of being unsettled or unresolved by the courts) is one of the keys to doing very well in law school. The best law students are the ones who recognize and identify these unsettled issues without pretending that they are easy. Understand Any Concurring and/or Dissenting Opinions  You probably won’t believe me at first, but concurrences and dissents are very important. You need to read them carefully. To understand why, you need to appreciate that law is man-made, and Anglo-American law has often been judge-made. Learning to “think like a lawyer” often means learning to think like a judge, which means learning how to evaluate which rules and explanations are strong and which are weak. Courts occasionally say things that are silly, wrongheaded, or confused, and you need to think independently about what judges say. Concurring and dissenting opinions often do this work for you. Casebook authors edit out any unimportant concurrences and dissents to keep the opinions short. When concurrences and dissents appear in a casebook, it signals that they offer some valuable insights and raise important arguments. Disagreement between the majority opinion and concurring or dissenting opinions often frames the key issue raised by the case; to understand the case, you need to understand the arguments offered in concurring and dissenting opinions.

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IV. WHY DO LAW PROFESSORS  USE THE CASE METHOD? 

’ll conclude by stepping back and explaining why law professors bother with the case method. Every law student quickly realizes that law school classes are very different from college classes. Your college professors probably stood at the podium and droned on while you sat back in your chair, safe in your cocoon. You’re now starting law school, and it’s very different. You’re reading about actual cases, real-life disputes, and you’re trying to learn about the law by picking up bits and pieces of it from what the opinions tell 61 

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Orin S. Kerr  you. Even weirder, your professors are asking you questions about those opinions, getting everyone to join in a discussion about them. Why the difference?, you may be wondering. Why do law schools use the case method at all? I think there are two major reasons, one historical and the other practical. The Historical Reason  The legal system that we have inherited from England is largely judge-focused. The judges have made the law what it is through their written opinions. To understand that law, we need to study the actual decisions that the judges have written. Further, we need to learn to look at law the way that judges look at law. In our system of government, judges can only announce the law when deciding real disputes: they can’t just have a press conference and announce a set of legal rules. (This is sometimes referred to as the “case or controversy” requirement; a court has no power to decide an issue unless it is presented by an actual case or controversy before the court.) To look at the law the way that judges do, we need to study actual cases and controversies, just like the judges. In short, we study real cases and disputes because real cases and disputes historically have been the primary source of law. The Practical Reason  A second reason professors use the case method is that it teaches an essential skill for practicing lawyers. Lawyers represent clients, and clients will want to know how laws apply to them. To advise a client, a lawyer needs to understand exactly how an abstract rule of law will apply to the very specific situations a client might encounter. This is more difficult than you might think, in part because a legal rule that sounds definite and clear in the abstract may prove murky in application. (For example, imagine you go to a public park and see a sign that says “No vehicles in the park.” That plainly forbids an automobile, but what about bicycles, wheelchairs, toy automobiles? What about airplanes? Ambulances? Are these “vehicles” for the purpose of the rule or not?) As a result, good lawyers 62  11 GREEN BAG 2D 

How to Read a Legal Opinion  need a vivid imagination; they need to imagine how rules might apply, where they might be unclear, and where they might lead to unexpected outcomes. The case method and the frequent use of hypotheticals will help train your brain to think this way. Learning the law in light of concrete situations will help you deal with particular facts you’ll encounter as a practicing lawyer. Good luck!

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